Channel 5 tries to change its spots

Channel 5 is cleaning up its act in an effort to become a channel of choice. But it badly needs funds to buy better programming.

Positive column inches have been a long time coming for Channel 5. Once lambasted by the Daily Mail for its soft-porn programming, it now appears that the channel can do no wrong.

Though founded on the principles of football, films and fornication, having just celebrated its fifth anniversary, the channel is growing up and attempting to move away from its tacky image.

Director of programmes Kevin Lygo, former Channel 4 head of entertainment, has revamped the schedule with the long-term ambition of making C5 a “channel of choice”. New commissions are still in the pipeline, but there are signs of a new order. Acquisitions CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Law and Order, and daytime repeats of lifestyle programmes such as Hot Property have been introduced.

Factual programming still goes out before and after the 9pm film, but the content of such programmes is due to become less sex-driven.

C5 marketing director David Pullan, who joined from MTV in February, is devising an identity for the channel which reflects its new-found maturity and is “less in your face” than the cheeky-chappie image cultivated by former marketing chief Jim Hytner, now ITV’s marketing and commercial director.

WalkerBannisterBuss, set up by former BBC director of marketing communications Matthew Bannister and consultants Simon Walker and Nicky Buss, has been appointed to advise on future strategy and positioning.

Pullan has also taken on TBWA/London (MW May 16), in place of Hytner-appointed Walsh Trott Chick Smith, on the understanding that TBWA chairman and creative director Trevor Beattie will personally work on the channel’s &£5m advertising account.

TBWA managing partner Jonathan Mildenhall says: “The current perception of C5 lags behind the reality of the channel and this suggests that there is a big marketing job to be done to reconcile the brand and the content.”

Mildenhall says there will be less reliance on traditional advertising media, with 75 per cent of creative messages using other forms of communication in a bid to promote key programmes to specific audiences.

Pullan is also in the process of seeing pitches from design agencies for a new on-air look and may even, according to one industry insider, be considering axing the five candy-coloured bars.

Arguably, the revamped schedule is starting to attract new audiences. C5’s share of viewing last year was 5.9 per cent and for the year to date it is 6.6 per cent. Media buyers claim the rise is partly due to the schedule addition of Home and Away as well as changes to BARB’s TV audience measurement system.

Media Planning Group’s head of broadcast Andrew Canter says: “It has seen a jump in audience figures and the changeover in BARB systems has been a big factor. I think next year will be a tough year for the channel and I don’t think it will be showing as large a growth as it has this year in some demographics.”

Advertising revenues are also on the increase. For May the channel is projected to secure revenues of &£21m, up 44 per cent on the same period last year, giving it almost eight per cent of the total market. C5 reported &£83m in revenue for its first year and is expecting to attract &£220m for this year, with an additional &£7m in sponsorship revenue.

Ilker Shakir broadcast director at Initiative Media, believes there is scope for revenue growth. He says: “There is a lag, money doesn’t follow audience that quickly.”

Media agencies will also be negotiating deals in the autumn based on the new BARB figures.

C5’s majority shareholder RTL, with a 65 per cent stake, has greater ambitions and has set a share of viewing target of ten per cent. However, C5 has a programme budget of &£149m compared to rival Channel 4, which achieved a ten per cent share last year with a budget of &£426m.

But securing agreement for extra funding from minority shareholder United Business Media, with a 35 per cent stake, has always been a struggle for C5. In the past it has had to apply pressure through RTL, as well as resort to the courts in a dispute over the funding of the acquisition of movie rights. UBM has also been keen to hold out for a good price for its stake, so far preventing RTL from taking full control. C5 still has a long way to go to become a channel of choice like Channel 4 or Sky Sports, claims Nick Theakstone investment director at MindShare.

He adds: “Every now and again C5 has the odd film and or sporting event, but it must acquire some must-see programmes, hence the disappointment of losing the bid for The Simpsons.”

However, the Communications Bill has thrown the media landscape into disarray, paving the way for a single ITV that may appeal to Bertelsmann-controlled RTL in favour of C5 which could then be snapped up by a non-European media owner. A media merger frenzy has been predicted by analysts making UBM even keener to hold out for the best possible price.

If C5 ends up entirely in the hands of a foreign owner, whether RTL, News Corporation or another media player, it will be able to bank on a larger programming budget that may help it become a channel of choice.

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